Sri Lanka is home to some incredible wildlife experiences. None more so than taking a safari at one of its national parks. Yala National Park is located on the southeast coast of Sri Lanka, bordering the Indian Ocean. It has been a wildlife reserve since 1900 and is home to some incredible animals. Most famously, the largest concentration of leopards in the world roam the park and draw visitors from all over the world seeking a glimpse of the elusive big cat.
It was therefore a must-do on my most recent trip to Sri Lanka and we spent a day riding around in a safari jeep looking out for wildlife. Here’s what you need to know about the park, how to book your own safari experience, and some insight into our own experience.
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What animals can I see in Yala National Park?
Yala National Park is home to 44 species native mammals, 215 types of birds and 46 reptile species. You will certainly see a wide variety of animals. Some of the highlights you’ll spot include:
- Sloth bears
- Leopard*- Yala’s star of the show
- Sambar deer*
- Mouse deer*
- Water buffalo*
- Painted storks*
- Wild boar*
- Indian hare*
- Grey languars*
- Macaque monkeys*
All of the above with a star are species that we spotted on our safari. The only main animal we wanted to see and didn’t spot was a sloth bear which can be fairly elusive.
Our experience at Yala National Park
Booking our safari
We decided to do our day trip to Yala National Park while travelling between two places on our itinerary – Unawatuna and Ella. This was after I spent some time trying to figure out which location would be best to take the tour from only to realise there wasn’t much of a difference and that we would need to hire a car transfer between the two anyway.
I shopped around for tours for a while and prices seemed to vary greatly. But we arrived in Sri Lanka without it booked. Our taxi provider found us one for just under £20 per person plus entrance fee (about £15 each) which turned out to be a pretty good price compared to most on Tripadvisor. And they arranged for the safari driver to have plenty of snacks on hand because it was going to be such a long day. You can read more about booking taxis in Sri Lanka in this post.
Starting the day
The alarm went off at about a quarter to 3 a.m. and we were soon on the road for a nearly three-hour drive. The sun came up as we got close to the park and we met our safari driver for the day and climbed in the back of the jeep. It was a private tour so just Matt and I were in the truck for the day.
We were lucky enough to have mainly dry weather on the day but the recent weather had been very stormy and there was a bit of flooding in certain parts of the block. This does make it harder to see a lot of the animals. I think we must have gotten lucky with what we saw.
As we embarked on the bumpy dirt path, we immediately started to see some of the local wildlife. A peacock stood proudly on the entryway gate and water buffalo walked leisurely along the road. Further along, painted storks, pelicans and herons hung out near the water.
On the chase
We spent a lot of our day chasing leads on leopard sightings. And it was worth it in the end. We checked their usual hangouts. Our drivers traded tips with other jeeps and was in communication with headquarters tracking the leopards. The jeep made several stops at a tree where a dead, bleeding wild boar was tucked in the branches. We waited patiently for the leopard who left it to stop back by for their lunch. Around 9:30 we got our first leopard sighting. She was resting in the trees and quite far away but we could definitely see her.
I had heard we would not see any animals in the middle of the day. However, quite a few species made their appearance up until the lunch break. A crocodile lounged in the midday sun. A family of wild boar and later a family of jackals travelled down the dirt path. And we got another rare animal spotting in the form of a young mouse deer.
I even enjoyed the exhilarating jeep ride, thundering along the dirt path in search of exciting creature encounters.
The park is closed from 12-2pm and no jeeps can operate between these hours. We therefore stopped at a picnic area for a bit of food, use of the (basic) facilities, and a nap in the truck. We had to watch out for the macaque monkeys that like to hang around here – they are bold and will certainly try to steal visitors’ lunches.
Setting off again, our guide prioritised finding some elephants. And we found plenty. A young male was swimming across a flooded plane while a larger bull crossed in front of our truck. Later, we saw a family of elephants including a baby snacking in the forest.
An evening surprise
Around 6pm, the jeep was hurtling down the road and we thought our driver was likely keen to call it a day. We felt satisfied with our day. Maybe a bit disappointed we didn’t get a closer look at a leopard. We slowed to a stop near a large rock behind a couple of other safari jeeps and spotted her. A leopard was lounging on the rock, cleaning herself and relaxing after an evening meal. We ended the day with a last, very close leopard encounter.
The sun started to set as we headed toward Tissamaharama and we grabbed some dinner nearby. The whole day, while tiring, was absolutely incredible. I can’t recommend seeing this incredible national park enough.
Is Yala National Park worth visiting?
Absolutely, and it is arguably the most impressive wildlife reserve in the country. My first trip to Sri Lanka included a safari at Minneriya National Park to see the large herds of elephants. The experience was unforgettable and it was certainly the best place to see elephants. You won’t find that concentration of elephants living in Yala but you will find a much greater variety of animals and are much more likely to see some amazing animals such as leopards. And plenty of elephants!
Booking a safari
To visit Yala National Park you will need to book a safari. A trekker will take you around the park in a jeep for the day. Some tours include entrance fees but otherwise you will pay this at the gate to the block in cash.
In order to book your safari, you can book ahead online or possibly your hotel will offer day trips to the park. The tours are usually operated by various companies and prices also seem to vary so it is worth at least doing some research before you go.
Should I book a half-day or full-day safari?
You won’t see many animals in the middle of the day and the park is closed from 12-2. But having a full-day tour gives you double the chance of spotting elusive creatures in the early morning and in the evening. We had a slight glimpse of a leopard and a quick glance of an elephant in the morning but got an incredible view of a leopard and saw families of elephants in the evening.
It was a very long and tiring day. I actually dozed off a couple of times as the safari truck bounced along the dirt roads. So you may prefer to stay near the park. There are some gorgeous hotels nearby in Tissamaharama. The other benefit of this is that you get a better chance of getting into the park as soon as it opens if your safari driver allows it. We did manage to get in very early and probably would have been one of the first to get in the gate if our original taxi driver hadn’t been late. Again, we managed to see loads of animals but it did cost us a sighting of a sloth bear that had been in the area just prior.
Most tours only explore Block 1, but the park is made up of five blocks. The only other open to safaris at the moment is Block 2. Our tour was of Block 1 so I don’t have much advice on what the other is like. However, another traveller we met had been in Block 2 the day before and said it was much quieter.
The bottom line: A half day should be enough but if you are really set on seeing a certain animal, such as a leopard, book a full day or even multiple days to avoid disappointment.Booking.com
How to get to Yala National Park
Yala National Park is located along the southeast coast and runs through the Southern and Uva provinces of Sri Lanka. It is a huge area, but as I said, only part is open to visitors. The entrances are located about an hour from Thissamaharama.
If you are trying to fit it into your itinerary, it is easily reached from the south coast (3 hours from Galle) or from Ella (just under 3 hours).
Facilities at Yala National Park
You’ll find toilets at the entrance to the block and also at the designated picnic area where the jeeps stop for lunch just outside the park. Apart from that, there are no toilets. And you aren’t allowed out of the truck for a wild wee or anything. It was therefore a delicate balance between trying to stay hydrated and trying not to need the toilet. I feel like if I managed then most people would be as well.
That said, make sure to bring some bottled water, snacks and I would recommend packing something for lunch. Just please make sure to take any and all rubbish with you. Leave nothing behind. Some of the tour companies will bring a cold curry lunch but I do think I got mild food poisoning afterwards. It was also difficult to eat off the plate with macaque monkeys constantly trying to steal your food. So something easily held in your hand would be best to bring!
Some of the animals you spot might be far away from the truck and while we had a pair of binoculars in the truck, you may want to bring an extra pair. This is definitely the place where a decent camera and a good zoom lens comes in handy. Our iPhone photos were rubbish in comparison with those our guide took with a zoom lens.
Other tips for visiting Sri Lanka
Yala was part of an amazing second trip to Sri Lanka. If you are looking to plan your own trip, you might find these guides useful: